During the holiday of Hanukkah, the town of Afula’s municipal park will be off limits to Arabs. The park was already closed Nov. 24 to visitors from nearby villages. Only the Jewish residents of Afula were allowed to enjoy time with their families in this public space. This Hanukkah will be the first holiday in which access to the park is limited to Jews.
Racist phenomena such as this did not start in Afula with the passing of the Nationality Law, anchoring the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. It is the nature of laws like this one to have a particular impact on regions that already lean in a certain direction and are encouraged to continue following this path by the establishment. Afula, known as the "Capital of the Valley,” was first founded in 1925 to provide services for the Jewish agricultural settlements that had been established in the Jezreel Valley in the early 20th century. There are also several Arab villages in the region, such as Nein and Sulam, and it is close to the West Bank and to Arab towns and villages across the Green Line. Terrorist attacks in Afula over the past few decades tended to originate across the Green Line. As such, they did little to foster any warm feelings between the people of Afula and their Palestinian neighbors.
When Israeli Arabs, who could not find housing in the neighboring villages, turned to Afula, they often encountered hostility and rejection. In 2015, a tender for 45 housing units in Afula was released, with all of the units going to Arabs. Local residents appealed to the District Court in Nazareth, which eventually overturned the tender, claiming that prices had been coordinated among the participants. In August 2017, the Supreme Court overturned the District Court’s ruling. The incident, in which the tender’s results were invalidated, only to be restored, exacerbated tensions between the Jewish population and local Arabs, whether they already lived in the city or wanted to join them there.
When tensions related to security abated, so did tensions between the communities. The city's residents were wise and pragmatic, dancing between the raindrops. They expressed understanding for the concerns of Afula’s Jewish population, trying to ease tensions between the sides. It wasn’t easy. I had quite a few discussions with them over the past few years and can testify as to how difficult the situation was for them. It was obvious back then that anyone who brought as much as a match to the city could end up lighting a major fire.
The mayoral elections Oct. 30 revolved around questions pertaining to the local Arab population. Avi Alkabetz, who already served briefly as mayor several years earlier, made no effort to hide the fact that he was promoting a decidedly anti-Arab agenda. He knew exactly what he was doing, too. Preventing Arabs from living in Afula and banning Arabs access to the park that he built as mayor were just about the only issues in his election campaign.
Throughout his campaign, there were already several violent clashes between Jews and Arabs over residency rights. When a Jewish resident dared to sell his apartment to an Arab last June, demonstrations immediately erupted against him. He soon announced that he withdrew from the sale, but that was not enough to placate the angry mob. They demanded that he appear in public to prove that he had pulled out of the contract. Only then did the demonstrators ease up on him.
Last September, just three months after that incident and in the heat of the election campaign, an Israeli Arab, who had purchased an apartment in the town, had “Death to the Arabs!” spray-painted on his door. It was just a few weeks after the Nationality Law had passed. It was soon learned that the 25-year-old Arab had served in the Israel Defense Forces’ Givati Brigade, participated in Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and upon his release, decided that he wanted to live in Afula’s Givat HaMoreh neighborhood. But Afula believes that all Arabs are equal. It refused to discriminate against one but not the other.
Upon his re-election as mayor, Alkabetz swore in the members of his town’s city council from his coalition, but also from the opposition. According to the law, the oath of office that they take includes a declaration of loyalty to the State of Israel and a commitment to fulfill their duties on the city council in good faith. But Alkabetz wanted more, and demanded that they add to the oath by committing to preserve Afula’s Jewish character. Whenever anyone raised an eyebrow, the old-new mayor explained that there is nothing wrong with adding to the official oath as established by law.
I was sworn into the Knesset on five separate occasions. On three other occasions, I took the oath of office as a member of the government. In some cases, there were Knesset members — mainly from the ultra-Orthodox and Arab factions — who requested to add a word or two to the formula prescribed by law. In each case, the speaker of the Knesset announced that no one may add or remove a word from the official oath, and that anyone who failed to swear the oath of office as determined by law would be prevented from assuming office. A reasonable interpretation and application of the law could overturn the aforementioned innovation introduced by Alkabetz. However, when the town of Afula was asked about this by the Haaretz newspaper, it responded that adding words to a legally binding oath would not impinge on the legal commitment of the city council members. As if to bolster its position, the city then added that this legal position has the support of the Ministry of Interior. The newspaper then asked for the opinion of jurists. Some responded that the passing of the Nationality Law may be sufficient backing for this additional declaration, even though there was no basis for it before the law was passed.
Do you understand what’s going on? The Interior Ministry is currently headed by a convicted felon, who is about to go back to court to face charges of fraud, violation of trust and money laundering. Yet he is providing moral support to a mayor who was elected to his position after inciting against the Arab population and waging a racist campaign against them. And the sun continues to shine, as if this is the way of the world.
Feigning innocence, Alkabetz said that he is absolutely shocked to hear himself described as a racist. In a conversation with Al-Monitor he said that quite a few Arabs work for the city, and that relations with them are good. On the other hand, he continued, Jews should not sell apartments to Arabs, because that could alter the Jewish character of the city. As for closing the park to Arab citizens, this is not the slightest bit racist either, he argued, since Jews, who do not live in Afula, will not have access to the park on Sabbaths and holidays either. Everyone will be required to show ID upon entering the park, and if they are not residents of Afula, they will be asked to leave.
When the Netanyahu government first passed the Nationality Law, its spokespeople argued that there was nothing new in it. It was simply a collection of clauses from existing laws intended to highlight the Jewish character of the country and the special relationship that the Jewish people have with it. There was no reason for the outcry, or so it was said, since the law did nothing more than reflect the existing situation, in terms of the official language and other matters. To anyone who didn’t realize what the law was about and to all those who helped to get it passed, it should now be quite obvious what the law really means.
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